Forum Seeks Muslim - Western Understanding

Madrid, Spain - The world is in urgent need of dialogue between Western and Muslim countries as a way to combat terrorism, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday as he opened an international forum.

''Never in our lifetime has there been a more desperate need for constructive and committed dialogue, among individuals, among communities, among cultures, among and between nations,'' Ban said in Madrid at the start of a two-day meeting of the Alliance of Civilizations, a U.N.-backed initiative aimed at encouraging dialogue between the West and Muslim countries.

''The threats are terrifying but the responses are at hand,'' he added.

''Fostering dialogue will not produce changes overnight,'' said Ban. ''It is not the fast way. But it is the sure way.''

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero presented the alliance idea to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2004 after the March 11, 2004, terrorist bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800.

The initiative is seen by many as Zapatero's attempt to counteract the military approach to terrorism fostered by the United States. Zapatero's Socialists were elected to office in the wake of the 2004 attacks. One of his first measures was to bring home Spanish troops sent to Iraq by his conservative predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, a strong ally of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Turkey later became a co-sponsor of the project, which was adopted by the United Nations and now has the backing of more than 80 nations.

Opening the conference, Zapatero said the Alliance hoped to prevent a ''clash of civilizations by promoting security, understanding tolerance and mutual respect in a globalized world.''

''It aspires to build bridges that can help us to manage the differences existing in the world, particularly those linked to religious or cultural issues,'' Zapatero added.

The event was attended by dozens of government members, representatives of international organizations, civil society, the media and philanthropic foundations from across the world.

Critics in Spain have called the alliance a pointless venture and merely a bid by Zapatero to get a foot on the international stage.

With Spain's general elections two months ahead, opinion polls show the Socialists and conservatives in a dead heat.

''Zapatero is trying to leave his mark on the international scene,'' columnist Manuel Martin Ferran in the conservative ABC daily on Tuesday.

The Alliance has set education, migration, the media and youth as its four areas for special attention.

The meeting will include workshops on issues ranging from building cross-cultural understanding of conflict prevention, religion and politics at the community level.

Organizers said they planned to announce details of a media fund aimed at supporting major film productions that promote cross-cultural understanding and combat stereotypes.

They said Sheikha Mozah, chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, was also expected to announce a major financial commitment toward the establishment of a global youth employment initiative involving corporations, major multilateral organizations and governments.